Let Them Eat Cookies — Realpolitik Fail

by Andrew Stuttaford

Over on Slate, there’s a bracing, bleak read from Anne Applebaum on Ukraine. Here’s an excerpt:

First and foremost, it’s time to abandon the myth of the “color revolutions”: the belief that peaceful, nonviolent demonstrators, aided by a bit of Western media training, will eventually rise up and overthrow the corrupt oligarchies that have run most of the post-Soviet orbit since 1991. The history of Ukraine, from the 2004 Orange Revolution until now, has proved this belief to be false.

In fact, corrupt oligarchs, backed by Russian money and Russian political technology, are a lot stronger than anyone ever expected them to be. They have the cash to bribe an entire parliament’s worth of elected officials. They have the cynicism to revive the old Soviet technique of selective violence: One or two murders is enough to scare off many thousands of peaceful demonstrators, one or two arrests will suffice to remind businessmen who is boss. They have also learned to manipulate media (as the Russians do), to multiply their money in Western financial institutions (as the Russians do), even to send threatening text messages. They have crafted a well-argued, well-funded alternate narrative about Western economic decline and cultural decadence. A friend jokingly calls this the “all your daughters will become lesbians” line of argument, but it is surprisingly powerful.

But the recent history of Ukraine should lead us to abandon another myth as well: the belief that some kind of post-Cold War order still prevails in Europe, and that the United States is an important part of it. It is true that European Union leaders have engaged with Ukraine for the past several years at many levels—presidential, ministerial, bureaucratic—in an effort to create a broader relationship. It is true that their effort failed, following a concerted Russian campaign of targeted trade boycotts, veiled military threats, big bribes (a lower gas price), many smaller bribes, and a massive anti-Western propaganda effort designed to make Ukrainians believe “Europe” would be bad for them.

The American response, meanwhile, has been negligible. After European talks broke down, the Obama administration sent an assistant secretary of state to hand out cookies to demonstrators in Kiev. Now the administration says it might not issue visas to a few Ukrainian leaders. That policy might make a few people in Washington feel better, but it will also send the Ukrainians running directly into the arms of the Russians. In the words of a Canadian diplomat, “It’s like watching a hockey game with only one team on the ice.”

It will take a while for these new truths to sink in, but once Ukrainians realize that the ideal of the color revolution is dead, and that the West has no tools to revive it, there may be consequences. If peaceful demonstrations don’t work, after all, some may logically conclude that it’s time to use violence. Ukrainians have indeed constructed violent resistance movements more than once in the past century. It’s even possible that the Ukrainian government hopes they will do so again, as that might rapidly render all opposition illegitimate.

The whole piece is well worth reading, but in the end Applebaum does not come up with a clear answer of what the US should do next, probably for the good reason that there is none. But handing out cookies is not going to be enough. A nice gesture and all that, but . . .

Rejecting the idea that America has some sort of universalist mission is one thing, but for a great nation to bury its head in the sand is entirely another. In a rough world, a world in which powers have always jostled each other — and always will — there is indeed, whatever the naysayers may say, such a thing as “provocative weakness,” and it’s hard not to think that — so far as Putin is concerned — this is exactly the message that the U.S. has conveyed.

Think back, say, to September 17, 2009, the date when the Obama administration scrapped plans for a missile shield based in Poland (supported by a radar installation in the Czech Republic). Some sort of alternative system will eventually be put in place, but the initial decision (and, doubtless, subsequent hesitation) was seen in the region as a statement of weakness in the face of Russian pressure. The fact that it was announced on the seventieth anniversary of the USSR’s 1939 invasion of Poland — a date well-remembered in a part of the world that knows its history — only added a perception of American ignorance to American weakness. And if the administration genuinely believed that the EU alone — the EU — could fill the gap, well . . .

Let’s just say the Russians were paying attention.